By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But their continued health depends largely on the activists, like Blackstone and Romano, who have assigned themselves the Sisyphean task of compensating for our abject neglect. They are determined not only to replace all the trees that die or are cut down, but to improve the care of those already here and plant even more, doing away with those relentless, sun-scorched stretches from the Valley to Hollywood to Highland Park. Thus far they have found it a tough row to hoe, clashing with the city, the general public and each other. For the time being, they've narrowed their focus to one √Ę thing: an end to bad tree trimming. Most days even that seems impossible.
I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
-- Dr. Seuss
ROMANO HEADS TOWARD THE 101, POINTING out notable specimens along the way. There are hearty, dense Indian laurels, once hailed as miracle trees and widely planted for their ability to get big fast, but later spurned because they got too big. There are Southern magnolia saplings, with their glossy, leathery leaves and fragrant white flowers. There are pink crepe myrtles from China, lacy, lavender jacarandas from Argentina, gnarled, dusty-looking sycamores, and several kinds of eucalyptus (California is home to more eucalyptus than anywhere else in the world outside Australia). Across from the Hollywood Bowl stand a pair of sickly looking, red-flowered African coral trees, the official tree of L.A. (not, contrary to popular image, the palm, which is technically neither a tree -- it's in the grass family -- nor native to L.A.). On the west side of Highland rises a towering bunya bunya, an Australian conifer whose seeds can be an important source of food for aboriginals and wallabies. "It would be hard to find this range of trees anywhere else," Romano says. "It's our blessing and our curse. Who knows how to take care of so many different types of trees? They all have different needs."
Both Blackstone and Romano are certified arborists, and both lifelong L.A. residents who were drawn to trees relatively late in life. Romano, who founded the Hollywood Beautification Team, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sprucing up the neighborhood as well as surrounding schools, became a tree activist after she saw hundreds of stately elms she had watched grow since she was a child sawed down to stubs. "I just stood there," she recalls, sniffing, as she often does when agitated. "I couldn't move. I couldn't imagine who would have done such a thing. I was stunned." Years later, she keeps snapshots of those mutilated trees propped on the dresser in her bedroom, a constant reminder of her mission.
Blackstone, who was a housewife and then a single mom working a range of jobs from nursery-school teacher to public relations, eventually went back to school to study arboriculture. The name Sylva comes from the Latin and means "protector of the forest." "My mom liked it," Blackstone says. "She had no idea what a perfect name it would turn out to be." Blackstone now runs her own tree-care business from her home in Highland Park. "I feel that the trees called me," she says. "On days when I'm just nuts and saying I should retire to San Diego or Seattle, I stop and tell myself, 'Don't do it. This is where you're supposed to be. This is what you're supposed to be doing.'"
Blackstone bases much of her beliefs about proper tree care on the findings of Alex Shigo, a New Hampshire¬≠based plant pathologist who made his name in the 1970s by dissecting an estimated 15,000 trees and debunking the myth of "topping" -- hacking off the tops of branches -- which he believes is at the root of all bad tree care. In the early 1990s he helped persuade the city of L.A. to take topping off its list of accepted trimming practices. "He's my guru," says Blackstone, who owns many well-worn copies of his books, including an autographed first edition of Tree Pruning: A Worldwide Photo Guide.
It is largely because of Shigo's findings that Blackstone has made topping her number-one concern. Whether shearing a tree like a poodle or sawing branches down to stumps, topping causes a tree to panic and overcompensate, quickly producing hundreds of spindly branches loosely bonded to the tree's main structure. These fragile limbs are far more vulnerable to disease-bearing interlopers such as fungi and insects. "Topping is the second worst thing that can happen to a tree, after chopping it down," Shigo says in a phone interview. "But if you have to make a choice, I'd say cut the bottom and start over. At least you maintain the dignity of the tree."
Romano pulls off the 101 and heads into Encino, both she and Blackstone on the lookout for the trimming crew. They turn onto Willow Street and know they're nearing their target -- no trucks in sight, but a row of recent victims. Stripped of summer foliage, each tree looks exposed and scrawny, like a wet cat. The women park and begin their assessment with the seriousness of a pair